“Hacking Russia was off-limits. The Ukraine war made it a free-for-all.”
The Washington Post, May 1, 2022
By Joseph Menn
“Experts anticipated a Moscow-led cyber-assault; instead, unprecedented attacks by hacktivists and criminals have wreaked havoc in Russia”
For more than a decade, U.S. cybersecurity experts have warned about Russian hacking that increasingly uses the labor power of financially motivated criminal gangs to achieve political goals, such as strategically leaking campaign emails.
Prolific ransomware groups in the last year and a half have shut down pandemic-battered hospitals, the key fuel conduit Colonial Pipeline and schools; published sensitive documents from corporate victims; and, in one case, pledged to step up attacks on American infrastructure if Russian technology was hobbled in retribution for the invasion of Ukraine.
Yet the third month of war finds Russia, not the United States, struggling under an unprecedented hacking wave that entwines government activity, political voluntarism and criminal action.
Digital assailants have plundered the country’s personal financial data, defaced websites and handed decades of government emails to anti-secrecy activists abroad. One recent survey showed more passwords and other sensitive data from Russia were dumped onto the open Web in March than information from any other country.
The published documents include a cache from a regional office of media regulator Roskomnadzor that revealed the topics its analysts were most concerned about on social media — including antimilitarism and drug legalization — and that it was filing reports to the FSB federal intelligence service, which has been arresting some who complain about government policies.
A separate hoard from VGTRK, or All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Co., exposed 20 years of emails from the state-owned media chain and is “a big one” in expected impact, said a researcher at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his work on dangerous hacking circles.
But perhaps the most important victim of the wave of attacks has been the myth of Russian cyber-superiority, which for decades helped scare hackers in other countries — as well as criminals within its borders — away from targeting a nation with such a formidable operation.
About the Author:
Joseph Menn. San Francisco. Technology reporter specializing in hacking, privacy and surveillance. Education: Harvard College, A.B. in English. Joseph Menn joined The Post in 2022 after two decades covering technology for Reuters, the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. His books include “Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World” (2019) and “Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords who are Bringing Down the Internet” (2010).